The nose knows: How electronic detection dogs are helping bust bad guys
Police K-9s are being trained to detect the nearly-imperceptible scent found on hard drives, thumb drives and tiny SD cards
By Ted Czech, P1 Contributor
Bear the black Labrador retriever’s family just couldn’t handle him – bridled with excess energy, the rambunctious pooch was constantly hopping on counter-tops, said Todd Jordan, an Indiana firefighter.
But Bear was the perfect fit for the task Jordan had in mind – train a high-energy, yet obedient dog to detect the nearly-imperceptible scent found on hard drives, thumb drives and tiny SD cards.
Jordan, who had been training dogs in accelerant detection for two decades, had heard of the scent’s discovery in Connecticut a few years earlier, and when the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force asked him to train a dog, he thought he could do it.
Bear’s big test came in 2015 when he and Jordan were summoned to a church parking lot in Zionsville, Indiana, as numerous agencies gathered to serve a search warrant.
“‘This is a celebrity,’” he was told. “It was Jared Fogle. At that point, I got nervous. I was hoping the dog would do well.”
Jordan and Bear were brought to the Fogle’s house as he was suspected of possessing child pornography. On scene for several hours, the pair scoured the house room by room, taking breaks for rest and water.
Because the case was so compartmentalized, Jordan said he didn’t find out the thumb-drive uncovered in one of the rooms that Bear had indicated on contained key evidence until he saw a state’s attorney deliver the information on television.
“Once ‘Subway Jared’ happened – it was right in my backyard – it just exploded from there,” he said. “It’s such a huge problem that I am being called out on a regular basis. In the last 2-3 weeks, I’ve been on four search warrants.”
In just a few years, more applications for the dogs are becoming apparent – Jordan said he received a call recently from a handler in Chicago that found an SD card related to a terror plot, and another in Florida who helped find a police officer’s lost body cam.
“Everybody stores everything, either on their cell phone or an SD card,” Jordan said. “A lot of criminals are using them; they could be utilized in any type of crime.”
Origins of electronic detection k-9s
While police K-9s have been used for decades in operations such as drug interdiction, bomb detection and missing person and fugitive searches, electronic detection is the newest frontier for the disciplined and loyal canines.
The origins of the sub-specialty only date back about a half-decade. According to a story on TechRepublic.com, in 2012, Dr. Jack Hubball, a chemist with the Connecticut State Police, ascertained that all electronic storage devices share a chemical known as triphenylphosphone oxide (TPPO) that prevents them from overheating.
From there, it was a matter of Connecticut State Trooper First Class Mike Real training two Labrador retrievers to detect the chemical’s scent, the article states.
In addition to having a hyper-sensitive nose, the dogs provide the peace of mind that detectives have done everything they can to collect evidence when they leave a house.
There’s a ton of man-hours that can be spent tearing a house or other structure apart in search of evidence, and “the dogs can come in and cut that time in half,” Jordan said.
In one of Jordan’s cases, police were investigating a suspected child pornographer who also was a hoarder. Frustrated by mounds and mounds of trash, police brought Jordan in with another one of his dogs, Chip. “The dog was in there five minutes and indicated on a box full of devices,” Jordan said.
The storage devices are so small that the area they can be hidden are seemingly endless.
“You’re limited by someone’s imagination where they can hide this stuff,” said Mark Rispoli of Makor K9 in Napa, California, who like Jordan, trains dogs in electronic detection.
That said, under the right circumstances, the dogs have proven their value.
“If the odor’s available to the dog and you have enough time, the dogs will find it,” Rispoli said.
Training K-9s to detect triphenylphosphone oxide
Although trainers may disagree over some of the finer points of putting K-9s through the paces, they agree it boils down to repetition – getting the dogs to recognize the TPPO scent.
“It’s just teaching the dogs to detect another odor in a world of many odors,” Rispoli said.
Jordan said although his exact training techniques are “proprietary,” drilling dogs on TPPO is “just a bit more difficult…this odor is so minute.”
In terms of breeds, Rispoli works with a variety including Labs, spaniels, shepherds, even mixed breeds.
“As long as it has the characteristics to do the job, that’s all that counts,” he said.
Rispoli rattles off several of those characteristics: a high hunt drive, high play drive, extroverted but not nervous, genetically healthy and possessing a good orthopedic structure.
“I only use Labradors. The Labs have a very amicable personality,” Jordan said, and are not intimidating, so they have other uses, including calming victims during interviews.
funding for electronic detection k-9s
Despite the dogs’ successes, there are still challenges to surmount to transition from an investigator’s dream to case-breaking reality.
Jordan said that in the past he has agreed to train a dog at an investigator’s request, only to find out later the investigator’s chief had vetoed the idea. Since then, Jordan requires investigators to show proof of the green-light for the dog from their commanding officer.
“Right now, the biggest difficulty in agencies that want them is funding,” Jordan said. “They’re having a hard time getting money together for the dogs. Most of them take a while to convince the chief why an Internet crimes guy needs a dog.”
Rispoli said that one solution may be that several departments in proximity combine resources to fund a dog.
“There might not be enough work for a dog in a city, but a dog in a region,” he said. “It’s that concept I think most people are using.”
Rispoli added he is confident that as the dogs’ successes continue to mount and news of them is disseminated, more departments will consider them a viable detection tool.
“You’ll start seeing it more as a line item than it has been” in department’s budgets, Rispoli said.
About the Author
Ted Czech is a crime reporter in York, PA.